Eliminating Procedural Drift


Procedural drift is a problem that is not always apparent at first glance. It can exist throughout your organization, and it represents a real threat to the safety of your operations and employees.

The reason procedural drift can go unseen for so long is that is has a way of creeping into an organization. It only exists for brief periods of time during certain operations. It is also a problem that can cause those close to it to become blind to how far away from the actual procedure they are actually operating.

To better define procedural drift and demonstrate how prevalent it is, think of any task or activity in which you bend the rules slightly but are sure that you never actually break them.

Do you always fasten your seat belt before your vehicle starts moving? Maybe you don't drive at highway speeds without wearing it, but are there occasions when you're not always wearing it when your car or truck is moving?

What about when you're using a tool that wasn't designed for its purpose – using a wrench as a hammer or using a cheater-bar instead of getting a better tool for the job?

While these examples seem benign, they expose you to a higher risk while performing tasks. They also have a way of creeping into other higher-risk operations, where the potential consequences are much more severe.


Procedural drift exists in your organization for several reasons. Let's not pretend that it doesn't exist, because even in organizations with a phenomenal safety culture, procedural drift still happens.

Bad Procedures

Poorly written, out-of-date or vague procedures are prime examples of where you will find procedural drift. In these cases, you can't blame your employees for falling into the trap of procedural drift.

We won't go into too much detail on poorly written or out-of-date procedures; the problems with those are fairly self-explanatory. At Knowledge Vine, we consider vague procedures as a greater threat to the safety of an operation than a procedure that is flat out wrong. Skilled technicians typically know when a procedure is presenting them with incorrect information. Hopefully, you have a system in place to have those procedures corrected.

When we encounter clients who use vague procedures, we often find a larger corporate policy requiring generic procedures from a corporate directory to be used for all activities.

Forcing employees to use procedures that do not address their specific jobs and associated hazards for the sake of standardization is setting those employees up for failure.

Procedures That Are Too Prescriptive

Procedures that are too prescriptive can be just as dangerous as those that are too vague.

Handing your employees a book to guide them through a relatively simple task will likely result in your more experienced people not using the procedure at all. You should respect the skill level of your employees and give them the tools (in this case, procedures) that will assist them in their activities.

Lack of Front-Line Management

On incident investigations in cases when an employee was injured, we often see a procedural violation that either contributed to the incident or increased the severity of the injuries sustained.

For example, if an employee who wasn't wearing the proper personal protective equipment (i.e., gloves) sustains an injury to his or her hand, the odds are slim that the incident occurred at the exact moment that employee removed his or her gloves. It is more likely that the injured person works without the proper PPE more frequently than he or she admits.

If one employee works without proper PPE on a regular basis, it is logical to assume that either this is common practice on that employee's crew, or that procedural violation is accepted behavior in that crew.

If not wearing PPE is common practice, either the front-line supervisors allow this practice to go on, or they are not aware that employees violate company policy on a regular basis. Neither of these explanations should be acceptable to your organization. Here you have an established policy with frequent violations that result in modified behavior or a normalization of deviance. (We will get to that later.)

The Trap of Overconfidence

One of the traps we at Knowledge Vine warn clients about is the trap of overconfidence. As stated previously, being too prescriptive will lead your more experienced employees to leave the procedure sitting on the desk while they are out on the job site.

If an experienced technician has performed a job a thousand times, he or she is more likely to rely on his/her own experience than following a step-by-step procedure. This leaves your employees open to forgetting a step, performing tasks out of order or perpetuating bad habits every time they perform that task. This is almost the definition of procedural drift.


We used the term earlier – what is normalization of deviance?

Normalization of deviance and procedural drift go hand in hand. While procedural drift can happen as a single occurrence during an operation, normalization of deviance is procedural drift that has become part of daily operations.

Normalization of deviance is the "sticky" door that you continue to hit on the corner as you open it instead of getting the problem fixed. Sure; a sticky door isn't that big a hassle, and you've learned to live with it. But if that door needed to be used during an emergency and a new employee isn't familiar with your "procedure" for getting it open, something simple could cause someone their life.

If you've ever heard one of your employees say "I know the procedure says to do it this way, but we have to do it like this," procedural drift has become "normalized" and is now part of the "as is" working conditions.

Another underlying problem with normalization of deviance is that there is now a disconnect between what management thinks is happening on the job site and what is actually going on. This misalignment between the two is one of the first steps in eroding an organization's safety culture.


Eliminating procedural drift and developing a healthy and proactive safety culture requires active leadership involvement.

Front-line supervisors must be present on the job and be willing to assist their crews when they need help. We don't mean having supervisors jump into a harness to work on a piece of equipment. They should be ready to help remove the roadblocks that prevent employees from doing their job safely and efficiently.

If a required procedure isn't fit for its purpose, supervisors should fight to get the policy changed. But they also have to enforce the policies and procedures set by the company's managerial team. Allowing one employee or an entire crew to operate outside the organization's policies and procedures is not only setting them up for failure, but it also hides potential improvement opportunities from management, ensuring nothing changes.


If your organization has written policies and procedures that employees are required to follow, you must have a process for updating those documents based on employee feedback.

In the absence of a system that helps front-line employees make improvements to their own work, they are left little choice but to deviate from a procedure that doesn't serve their needs.

Effective after-action review meetings can be useful in capturing lessons learned after a job has been completed. While this adds time to every job, the input from employees who performed the work will help the organization improve operations, saving time in the long run while also preventing incidents and rework and lowering scrap rate.

Procedural drift is something that every organization deals with. It is almost impossible to eliminate it altogether, but by understanding that it exists your organization, you can take steps to reduce it. This will not be possible without buy-in from your employees, so get their feedback and find out what has become standard operating procedure or something that they have had to just "live with."

Improving safety is a continuous process. No matter where you are on your safety improvement journey, if you need help or guidance, reach out to one of our experts. We would be happy to help you develop a plan to eliminate procedural drift and any improve any other aspect of your safety performance.